DESPITE telling reporters last week that the discovery of unapproved Roundup Ready wheat growing in Oregon was an as yet unexplainable aberration, crop technology giant Monsanto remained under pressure because of the situation, and its stock price fell more than 6.5% by last Thursday's close of business.
With an ongoing U.S. Department of Agriculture investigation into the genetically modified (GM) wheat discovery and a farmer suing Monsanto for "gross negligence," investors showed wariness in the face of more questions than answers in the wheat dustup.
"It seems likely to be a random, isolated occurrence more consistent with the accidental or purposeful mixing of a small amount of seed during planting, harvesting or during the fallow cycle in an individual field," Robb Fraley, Monsanto chief technology officer, told reporters June 5.
When asked specifically about the possibility of an intentional release of the GM seed in the Oregon situation, Fraley wouldn't go so far as to suggest sabotage but admitted that the company isn't "ruling anything out."
The Oregon State University weed scientist at the origin of the case told Bloomberg News that Monsanto's claims about an isolated incident were far from the final answer.
"We don't know where in the whole chain it is," said Carol Mallory-Smith, the professor who initially tested the wheat samples in question. "I don't know how Monsanto can declare anything. We obviously had these plants in the field."
Therein, however, lies part of the problem. According to USDA, the samples in question were obtained from volunteer wheat in a single Oregon field, then tested by Mallory-Smith and, finally, sent to USDA's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for definitive testing.
Monsanto said it has not received much in the way of details on the wheat discovery, nor samples to perform its own confirmatory testing. Fraley explained that the process of testing for a specific genetic event is extremely complex, and the standard tests likely used by the university or USDA yield a high degree of false-positives.
Instead, the company has advocated using only a gene-specific assay that can rule out detection of the Roundup Ready trait from other sources — grain dust from Roundup Ready corn or soybeans, for example. By using more sophisticated technology and testing for the specific genetic event — known as CP4, or MON71800 — the company said the question could be settled if, indeed, the samples were of its Roundup Ready wheat.
Monsanto said as part of its commitment to the wheat industry, it provided the validated gene-specific assay to government regulators in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the European Union, in addition to USDA. The company said this validated testing method is far more reliable than other testing technologies, including polymerase chain reaction, strip tests or dip stick tests.
USDA has not confirmed whether APHIS has conducted the CP4 test using Monsanto's gene-specific assay. Reports surfaced June 3, however, that USDA had expanded its search team in Oregon from nine investigators on the ground to 15, although it reiterated that there were no indications that GM wheat ever made it into commerce.
A Kansas wheat farmer fired perhaps the first civil salvo in the curious case of the Oregon wheat, filing a suit against Monsanto alleging gross negligence.
According to the attorneys in the case from Susman Godfrey, the farmer is seeking compensation for damages caused by the GM wheat discovery and hinted that the case may be "the first of many" the company faces.
Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, the suit alleges that farmer Ernest Barnes, and U.S. wheat farmers in general, were similarly harmed by what the firm's statement describes as "contamination" of non-GM crops.
"Monsanto has failed our nation's wheat farmers," said Stephen Susman, founding partner of Susman Godfrey and the lead attorney in the case. "We believe Monsanto knew of the risks its genetically altered wheat posed and failed to protect farmers and their crops from these risks."